Where Was God at Virginia Tech?

As we get over the shock of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the religious questions will soon begin: How could God let this happen? What kind of God allowed it? How can I believe in God when bad things like this happen?

Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino can offer us some help. He knows a lot about tragedy. He nearly escaped assassination on March 16, 1989, in El Salvador when members of the military broke into the rectory and killed his brother priests, the housekeeper and her daughter. He was out of town that night.

After the peace finally came to El Salvador after 12 years of civil war (1980-92), an earthquake in 2001 killed over 800 people, injured nearly 5,000 and destroyed more than 108,000 houses and 150,000 buildings. The Salvadoran government didn't provide the necessary rebuilding support so the people did it themselves, first by digging out victims of the earthquake with their bare hands because they had no equipment. Sobrino concluded that God wasn't in the tragedy of the earthquake or even in the government's disregard for the people. God was in the people's response to the tragedy.

By declaring Cho sick and insane in plain view on America's TV and Internet screens, we essentially remove ourselves from any response for the killings and salve ourselves instead with anger or fear or denial or avoidance. We did this after Columbine and again, after 9/11. What is missing in our response to all these tragedies, however, is the "we." How are we part of the madness that drove the perpetrators? How are we preventing further heinous acts of violence? How are we making ourselves feel unsafe?

Many people will react to the VT tragedy by installing more cameras, more guards, more lock-downs, more security keys. Only those in the security business will benefit from this strategy as they willing sell institutions their goods. Administrators tend to adopt such measures because they look as though they're doing something. However, fear prevails because these security devices are constant reminders that campus is unsafe and everyone is at risk.

Many people will choose an avoidance strategy where they break some pattern they think relates to the tragedy. For example, the mother of one of my students advised him to forego applying for a residence hall assistant position because resident assistants at VT were among those killed.

When tragedy strikes, and it always does, some people go on with their lives without thought or reflection on it. This denial strategy essentially leads one to believe that nothing happened and all is normal. We try to get on with life without dealing with life's reality. We then prevent ourselves from acting against such tragedies because we refuse to relate to them or find meaning in them-or to find God in them.

I'm not suggesting a Pollyanna approach saying that all is well and God will provide. Actually, I'm suggesting a more confrontational approach against these evil acts of violence and terrorism.

* Join with others to form or strengthen your community, neighborhood or campus. Talk about these issues and figure out what YOU can do about them to respond without fear, hatred or denial but rather with love, compassion or reconciliation. After the Jesuits were executed in El Salvador, the gardener, who lost his wife and daughter in the killings, planted rose bushes in the same place where they were killed.

* Defy the inclination to give in to fear by objecting to stepped up security measures and instead organize people to look out for each other. Refuse to watch the repetitive news reports or analysis of the tragedy by turning off the TV and the Internet. Challenge people who say mean and nasty things about others to stop such vitriol.

* Sublimate your anger, sadness and fear by being silent within. Meditate. Take a walk in the woods. Breathe deeply. These strategies cleanse the body and help you face the tragedy.

For the present, it's clear that we are going to have to deal with terrorists in our world. Let us confront them by pulling together and allowing our communities to be transformed. So far, we're getting nowhere through our anger, fear or denial.

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. She has also written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion.

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